New Ugandan Fellow Helps Knight Boost Health Reporting

Aug 312009
  • Kakaire Ayub Kirunda (right) interviews a student nurse in the maternity ward at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda.

Knight Fellow Christopher Conte has won major support for a Ugandan health journalists’ organization from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Makerere University, East Africa’s largest university.

Thanks to his efforts, a prominent Ugandan journalist will spend the next two years working with the Uganda Health Communication Alliance (UHCA) on a project to help the media improve health literacy among Ugandans.

Kakaire Ayub Kirunda, a reporter for the Daily Monitor, was awarded a prestigious health fellowship by the School of Public Health at Makerere University; and Conte negotiated an agreement under which UHCA will host Kirunda.

The new project, funded by the CDC, brings a talented trainer and researcher to the UHCA and extends the impact of Conte’s Knight fellowship.

“This is a double-victory for health journalism in Uganda,” says Conte. “Journalists will get a strong, professional leader and trainer, and the health alliance will gain a great deal of momentum in its efforts to become a permanent force for improved health communication.”

Since arriving in 2008, Conte has revived the UHCA and helped build it into a valuable resource and venue for workshops, training and dialogues among health experts, health journalists and other communication professionals.

Conte said he is particularly pleased because Kirunda, one of the country’s leading health journalists, will focus much of his time on providing training where it is most needed – in largely rural areas outside the capital of Kampala.

In the first year of his fellowship, Kirunda will help UHCA develop a national network of health journalists and create resources and information to help them stay abreast of health issues. He also will explore alternative methods of getting health-related news and information to journalists in remote, rural areas.

Much of Kirunda’s first year with UHCA is intended to lay the groundwork for an important research project he will undertake in the second year of his fellowship. Still based at UHCA, he will develop and conduct a survey to measure the health literacy of Ugandans. He then will design training programs for journalists to close knowledge gaps uncovered by his research.

Kirunda will gather many of the resources he will share with journalists by working with the Health Communication Partnership (HCP), a program of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Among his initiatives: He will help HCP design radio distance-learning programs for Village Health Teams. These citizen health volunteers serve areas where there are no medical professionals. He also will work on communications projects to address such issues as medical male circumcision, couple HIV counseling and testing, pediatric anti-retroviral treatment and family planning. As UHCA’s liaison, he will ensure that journalists and other communications professionals have access to information and training on these issues.

Before being accepted into the School of Public Health-CDC program, Kirunda distinguished himself as a reporter at the Daily Monitor, where he wrote clear and accessible reports on health-related research and produced investigative stories. Last year, with Conte as his mentor, he wrote a series on deficiencies in Uganda's hospital system. The coverage inspired a similar project at the Daily Nation in Nairobi, Kenya, the Monitor's sister newspaper. That project, overseen by Knight Fellow Rachel Jones, prompted the government of Kenya to announce it would increase spending on the country’s public hospital system.

This year, again working with Conte, Kirunda and his Monitor colleague Eve Mashoo disclosed that the Ugandan government was slow in responding to a looming polio outbreak. The story prompted the Uganda Ministry of Health to release $2 million for a polio vaccination program, and public health officials credited the Monitor’s coverage with helping to make the program the most successful Ugandan vaccination campaign in memory. The round of vaccinations immediately following publication of the story reached 93 percent of the target population.